A loaded coal train rolled through Gillette on March 4, 2020. Coal production in the region has declined by half since 2008. (Dustin Bleizeffer/WyoFile)

Wyoming stands to receive millions in federal stimulus dollars aimed at helping coal- and energy-reliant communities survive industry downturns and diversify their economies. The state, however, is currently unprepared to capitalize on the opportunity, stakeholders say. 

The federal funds are not automatically allocated, but available on a competitive grant application basis. The exact amount — and for what — depends on the readiness of state and local governments to develop, pitch and implement initiatives that qualify. 

Coordination among coal communities and the state to compete for and deploy those dollars is lacking, according to Energy Capital Economic Development CEO Phil Christopherson. Energy Capital is the local economic development authority in Campbell County, home to the largest coal mining region in the country. 

Few Wyoming communities have the experience and grant-writing expertise necessary to qualify and compete on a national scale, Christopherson said, and they could benefit from more state assistance.

“We aren’t working with any other communities and, as far as I know, no other communities are working together,” Christopherson said. Many coal community revitalization programs are based on regional efforts to leverage resources and attract federal dollars. “I think it’d be good if we could, but we just haven’t really been able to coordinate any statewide or regional efforts as far as this money goes.”

At stake is a $300 million spending package from the U.S. Economic Development Administration’s Coal Communities Commitment to revitalize “hard-hit” coal and energy communities. The package is part of a broader $3 billion Department of Commerce initiative to help “communities around the country not only rebuild but reimagine their economy for the future,” Commerce Secretary Gina Riamondo said in a July press release.

A sign in downtown Rock Springs reminds residents and visitors of the town’s entrenched relationship with coal. (RJ Pieper)

Gov. Mark Gordon and members of the Legislature have said communities in Wyoming don’t need to “transition” away from a reliance on coal and fossil fuels. Instead, the Legislature has pushed a series of measures to keep coal plants and coal mines in operation. Meantime, Gordon has launched initiatives such as “Survive, Drive, and Thrive” to take advantage of federal pandemic relief funds in ways that tangentially achieve some of the same federal long-term sustainability goals for coal communities. 

What’s missing, according to Wyoming Economic Development Association Administrator Brittany Ashby, is a cohesive state-level strategy for how vulnerable communities can diversify and sustain themselves if the coal sector continues to shrink.

“I think we have a long way to go,” Ashby said. 

Coal community stimulus

The $300 million Coal Communities Commitment seeds President Joe Biden’s Interagency Working Group on Coal and Power Plant Communities and Economic Revitalization, created by executive order in January. The working group’s April report lists Wyoming among the top 25 most impacted regions for coal-related job declines and prioritizes the eastern half of the state as No. 8 and the western half of the state at No. 9.

“Given the expected near-term declines in coal production and generation from coal power plants, the Working Group recommends focusing initial federal investments in areas with high concentrations of coal-dependent jobs,” the report states.

Contributing to Wyoming’s ranking is the fact that Rocky Mountain Power has set early retirement dates for several coal-fired power units that are economic drivers for communities such as Glenrock, Rock Springs and Kemmerer. Coal mine production in the Powder River Basin — the nation’s largest coal mining region by volume — has declined by half since 2008, shedding thousands of direct and indirect jobs. Arch Resources, meanwhile, has said it plans to close its Coal Creek and Black Thunder mines in the basin.

Kemmerer area residents listen to public comment during a Jan. 28, 2020 Wyoming Public Service Commission meeting. (Andrew Graham/WyoFile)

Wyoming’s most recent economic analysis revealed that its energy communities were hardest hit by the pandemic in 2020, and that some are recovering at a slower pace than communities that are not reliant on fossil fuel industries.

Among the “immediate action” priorities for the federal stimulus dollars is to build more broadband capacity and connectivity, boost manufacturing and technology-based industrial parks, agricultural innovation hubs, environmental remediation, workforce development, healthcare and “non-profit job creators.”

Local efforts

The competitive federal grant process presents a challenge. Many coal communities across the country targeted for the federal stimulus funds don’t have the necessary resources or expertise to navigate what can be an arduous federal bureaucratic process, let alone to stand out in a competitive granting environment, according to Chelsea Barnes, legislative director for the nonprofit Appalachian Voices.

“That’s a problem everywhere, not just in Wyoming,” Barnes said, adding that many of the communities are in economic distress. “You can try throwing a bunch of money here, but unless there’s technical support, or changes to the requirements for some of these programs, it’s not going to actually reach the communities that need them the most.”  

Barnes believes that the EDC and other federal agencies are beginning to take those concerns into account, she said. The Interagency Working Group had planned to host a series of public workshops in coal communities across the country, but recently shifted to a virtual online effort.

The working group will host a Coal Communities Commitment webinar at noon on Thursday to discuss eligibility and how to apply.

Wyoming communities are not unfamiliar with granting programs through the Economic Development Administration, Ashby of the Wyoming Economic Development Association said. However, the EDA programs come with a lot of reporting requirements that stretch thin resources at small economic development offices.

“As a state, we have struggled to have communities want to put in the time that some of those [EDA] federal grants take,” Ashby said. “I think that’s partially a cultural thing in Wyoming.”

The Wyoming Economic Development Association convinced EDA representatives to come to Wyoming in August to visit with local economic development officials about the new coal community stimulus granting opportunities, according to Ashby.

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The Wyoming Business Council is stepping up efforts to help communities take advantage of the federal coal community stimulus programs, WBC Strategic Partnerships Director Ron Gullberg said. But it’s mostly on a per-request basis.

“We know there’s the EDA funding coming,” Gullberg said. “We’re going to be part of a collaborative effort. Right now it’s really getting the partnerships together and looking at what the needs are.”

Christopherson of Energy Capital in Campbell County said his organization was successful in landing a $1.46 million grant from the EDA for the Wyoming Innovation Center, a major component of the “carbon valley” vision for northeast Wyoming. He hopes to tap the EDA’s new revitalization initiative to help fund a non-energy-centric business park proposal that has circulated for several years.

“Through our work with EDA grants, what I have found is that you need to have a couple of applications that have already been through all the preliminary stuff, just sitting on the shelf ready to go, so when this money comes out you can apply for it,” Christoperson said. “Right now [Campbell County is] not in that situation, but I think this money should be good for us.”

Dustin Bleizeffer is a Report for America Corps member covering energy and climate at WyoFile. He has worked as a coal miner, an oilfield mechanic, and for 25 years as a statewide reporter and editor primarily...

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  1. I agree with Nancy Weidel’s comments. Our governor MIGHT have been blindsided by this “turn of events”, but he shouldn’t have been. Now is his opportunity to be a leader and get not only the legislature, but the industry in line to take advantage of some capital to transition from total dependence on extractive industries. I realize its more complicated than this article makes it sound, but if the person at the top had the fortitude to take some meaningful action, without worrying about political outcomes, this state might just face the facts and create a sustainable future.

  2. Wyoming is famous as an energy exporter. It is also fantastic as sending it high school and college students packing because of a lack of well-paying jobs. Diversion of the economy is non-existent. We have been so dependent on oil, gas, and coal. Each year we send billions of dollars of natural resources out of state to support the rest of the nation. Their economies are healthy and booming while ours are dying. We have pipelines and rail that export our wealth with little to replace it as it dries up. Our current leadership and legislature fail to see what is happening and grasp at a dead economy wondering when the oil, gas, and coal will return with their head in the sand opposing renewable energy and scoff at using some of our natural resources here in Wyoming. I recently visited Kemmerer Wyoming. It is starting to look like a ghost town following other towns like Big Piney and Reliance into obscurity. Long ago buggy whips were replaced with automobiles. Personally, most of my children and grandchildren have already left lookinf for well paying jobs in Colorado. It is time Wyoming finds leadership that will take us into the future. .

  3. The current Wyoming Republican legislature crop, especially those elected since Rosie Berger went down, and who, in spite of their actions, beliefs, continue to call themselves Republicans- I use another moniker for them – along with our governor, DC delegation, and many Wyoming residents just keep beating the same dead-for-years horse, flogging the phantom coal industry, continually throwing good money after bad. Call it coal recovery, make up some catchy name – “Survive, Drive, and Thrive”, whatever; to me it’s the same old Wyoming blind leading the blind…again. It’s
    – finally – time to give up the ghost.

  4. One would think by now after 132 years practice that Wyoming would be seasoned slick experts at getting their hands on federal dole…

    1. They are seasoned experts in Teton County. The county with massive wealth can’t make its economy and services function without federal handouts. Do we really think other communities can?

      Taxes need to be generated and income, investment, and real estate taxes, (etc) need to be on the table. Wyoming needs to pay its own way and stop demanding taxpayers in other states (or the extractive industry) underwrite Wyoming’s welfare queens like Teton County’s billionaires.

      Wyoming’s only real game plan is to use federal handouts as a short-term economic stimilus and pray for a rebirth of coal, nuclear power, et al. They have tried for decades to diversify the economy without success. They do it all wrong and their game plan is more of the same going forward. We all know that there is no way any coal community is going to see it’s economic health meet previous levels, or even come close. Even with experimental nuclear power as an option (another handout), nothing much will change the long-term outlook without new taxes and new ways of thinking.

      For example, Wyoming used to brag about its low-wage workforce to attract out-of-state employers. A business that comes here to exploit our desperation are rarely good investments. Private equity takes advantage of Wyoming’s desperation and handouts. They win, we lose. In Utah, private equity invests in the state because of the state’s economic success. Both win.

      1. George- my observation of Teton County is the billionaire class does little to edify the middle class and service class there. They hire cheap help to do the menial chores. Were it not for the immigrant class and Hispanics, Teton County would be beside itself. Imagine Alice Walton washing her own dishes or cleaning her own bathroom. But billionaires are neither problem nor solution in Jackson Hole.

        You forget that Teton County is 97 percent federal land, so the federal government is ommnipresent 24/7/365. No other County in America approaches that level. Your observations need to de-skew to reflect that.

        Teton County is a singularity ; an anomaly. My west side of Park County would be a better reference. We only have 2-3 billionaires here depending on the day of the week , very few Hispanics, and everything in between is a blur.

        1. “Were it not for the immigrant class and Hispanics, Teton County would be beside itself.”

          Maybe. Maybe not. In the short term, yes. The hospitality industrial complex was fit to be tied when they started to reopen and some of their cheap-labor visa workers were shut down due to COVID. They had to hire Americans. Or try. Not something they like doing. Wages shot upwards. Which, I will point out, goes against everything some people say about imported labor: it doesn’t harm the working class by depressing wages, increasing housing costs, decreasing affordable housing, removing job opportunities, stifling innovation, etc. It can and sometimes does. Nothing wrong with immigrants. Wyoming should welcome all the doctors and engineers we can find. And Wyoming needs immigrants ’cause Americans ain’t moving here (well, ain’t moving to most places in Wyoming). Lack of affordable housing doesn’t help.

          As for our Latino community, it plays a part in all sectors of our community. Cody has plenty of immigrant workers (usually white English-speaking J1 visa workers), but, you’re right, Cody is more like the rest of Wyoming than Jackson.

          As for the Federal land, it has little to do with raising taxes on Wyoming’s welfare queens (all of us). Either way, why subsidize the billionaires & millionaires via Wyoming’s laws, regulations, and tax system? They will be in Jackson (or Cody, Lander, etc) either way. They are in expensive tony resort communities all over the world.

          I never said billionaires are the problem or a solution in Jackson Hole. They help keep the economy humming and probably do less damage than the Hospitality Industrial Complex. They, however, do expand the NIMBY class and inflate land prices, etc. It cost a lot to service them. The government’s zoning, land-use regulations, tax laws, etc are all meant to enhance and protect their wealth while doing the opposite for the lower class. Try building a tiny home on a tiny lot in Jackson. Ain’t allowed. RV on your land? Nope. Economy & government designed with Class discrimination (classism) baked in.

          I think it is Christy Walton, et al. She owns several properties in Jackson (for her and Lukas). https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christy_Walton

          Having said all that, once again, there are plenty of tourists to tax, plenty of billionaires and millionaires, plenty of Wyoming residents, LLC’s, etc. Time to get off the dole.